Clement Greenberg: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:44 pm)

Avant-Garde and Kitsch

Greenberg is writing to discern and define two relatively recent antipodes of art and culture. The avant-garde and kitsch are both products of modernism, and both have emerged concurrently, affecting each other through their opposition. Greenberg begins his essay by noting that the answer in their difference lies deeper than mere aesthetics.


The avant-garde is a product of Western bourgeois culture. Outside of this moment of culture and the abundance produced by capitalist society, the avant garde would not have been possible, and bohemia would never have been established. The avant-garde came to being by emigrating from the old model of aristocratic patronage, to instead pursue art for its own sake (as opposed to for funding). The avant-garde never fully detached from bourgeois society, still depending on its money.

As an academic and intellectual movement, the avant-garde is compared with “Alexandrianism”, a certain reluctance to interfere or comment on culture. The essence of Alexandrianism is a devotion to repetition of themes and old masters. A consequence of this is a non-involvement in political matters. Where the avant-garde is different is from the devotion to pushing the boundaries of art. Instead of a reverence for the tradition and history of art, the avant-garde is about its future and potential. Content is irrelevant, only the form of art itself is of importance.

This devotion to art for its own sake is coupled with a sort of desire in the recreation of the world. Greenberg notes on artistic values: “And so he turns out to be imitating, not God–and here I use ‘imitate’ in its Aristotelian sense–but the disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves.” The abstract or non-representational stems from this notion. The avant-garde artist is not imitating or re-creating the world, but imitating and re-creating the form the art itself.

This idea focusing on the form and values are exposing a certain systematicity in the ideas of art. Where traditional representation evokes or creates a system of nature, the abstract evokes or creates the underlying ideas that ground representation in the first place. Instead of art that imitates life, art that imitates art. In simulation and modeling, this line of construction is prefixed with “meta”.

While the avant-garde rejects content and the bourgeois society from which it arose, it still depends on the wealth of the bourgeois to survive. Since the only audience with the culture and education to appreciate the strange avant-garde perspective is the audience with the wealth to afford education and culture.


Kitsch is hard to explain, but easy to give examples. Greenberg explains that “Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.” While universal literacy certainly sounds nice enough, but has some ominous undertones. Greenberg explains that kitsch arose to fill a demand for culture coming from the proletariat of industrialized countries. The proletariat consisted of peasants from the country who were settling in cities and simultaneously losing a taste for country culture and developing some degree of leisure time that required fulfillment.

The culture that arose from this is composed of artifacts of the existing cultural tradition. It borrows and synthesizes devices and forms from culture and manufactures products which are easily understandable and palatable for the prole audience. Kitsch is the ultimate synthesis of culture and media, and is also the ultimate recycler and disposal: it will use bits of artifacts that “work” and re-use them until exhausted. As a result (in the sense of Walter Benjamin), it destroys culture and then profits immensely.

Greenberg also explains some properties of kitsch: it is profitable, it is mechanical, it operates by formulas, it is vicarious, it is sensational, it adopts varying styles, it is the epitome of all that is spurious, it pretends to demand nothing from its customers but money. While not a formal definition, it helps clarify some things about what kitsch might be, but does not exactly explain, except in contrarian terms, what kitsch is not. Not kitsch is not profitable, not popular, not spurious. All of these qualifiers are exceedingly vague and subjective.

Greenberg claims that artistic values are relative, but that among cultured society, there is a general consensus over what is good art and what is bad. This may work qualitatively, in that many agree on the values of classics, there is very little agreement in contemporary works. Greenberg continues and explains that to acknowledge the relative nature of values, that artistic values must be distinguished from other values, but Kitsch is able to erase this distinction though its mechanical and industrial construction.

A key theme in this is the notion of value, and a relative situation of values. It is a sort of intellectual and educational background that defines and establishes these values for the educated audience, and lacking these, the proles miss the value inherent in abstract works. This education supplies a history and context, which is totally missing from the world of kitsch.

wrapping up

The avant garde imitates the process (and system) of art, and kitsch imitates its effect. The history of art had not enabled the interconnection of the artist with form, because of the nature of patronage as it had supported artists since the middle ages (which seems a little puzzling). Later, following the renaissance, a history of artists preoccupied and lonely in their attachment to their art begins to appear.

It is capitalism and authoritarianism that turn to kitsch as being tremendously effective at profiting from and placating the masses. Greenberg explains that socialism is the only movement that can support the avant-garde, or new culture.

critical notes

Greenberg’s primary concern seems to be that only the avant-garde is producing new cultural value, through the pushing of its limits. But, this attitude leaves something to be desired. Surely, cultural value must be seen as more than a scalar quantity?

There are many subtle assumptions underlying the criticism of Kitsch, which is that, when understood formally, as a synthetic product that seeks to make a profit, one could say that near unto all forms of art are kitsch. Ancient cultures were constantly referencing and alluding to the legitimacy of previous cultural products- Roman gods were borrowed from Greece and used to satisfy a cultural demand and need for legitimacy, yet this borrowing is not really seen as Kitschy. Even kitsch is disposed to find new ideas in itself from time to time.

Many contemporary works, must create something new, arguably have some artistic value, reference and synthesize, and some even have the misfortune of being popular. The qualifier of kitsch seems to only occur when the popularity and profit is absent. Clearly, there is a spectrum of gradations of a work in terms of its accessibility, but this is not necessarily equivalent with its artistic value. The danger of the existence of kitsch is to blur and erase this distinction, but that seems to afford the existence of kitsch much more authority than it ought to deserve.

Additional contemporary works derive from forms that might be considered kitsch, while not avant-garde, they can embrace the values of abstraction and, having emerged from a popular medium, form bubbles of artistic experimentation and radical difference and creativity. For example, within the popular medium of newspaper-style comics emerge highly experimental and complex works. These cannot be said to be kitsch in their emergence, but rather wholly new products.

In this sense, it seems that the qualitative distinction between kitsch and avant-garde, while an effective border, is little more than an arbitrary line over superficial ideas of value and imitation. The image drawn here (in 1939) is evocative of an intellectual stagnancy, one that began in the industrial revolution, but contemporary culture is certainly changed and contains new value from when Greenberg was writing. That value certainly did not all stem from avant-garde artists, nor is all of that value purely capitalist, so it must have come from elsewhere. But where?

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGreenberg, Clement
TitleAvant-Garde and Kitsch
Tagsdms, postmodernism
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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